The good thing about befriending Xi Shi, who’d died 1,200 years earlier, was that by the time something special actually happened in heaven—like spotting the first flock of magpies flying past the window—all Yuhuan had to do was rush out of her flat, and—woosh!—she’d been picked up by magic and teleported to the magpies’ destination.
They landed as a group of four on a long stretch of plain white clouds. Several miles ahead, the clouds were broken into thin wisps by a silvery-blue river that glistened like it was a cluster of stars, and stretched so wide that nobody could see the bank on the other side. On a normal day, barely anyone came to the river. Today, though, they were held back by a specially built barrier wrought from rainclouds charged with lightning, which stretched so far they couldn’t see the ends, and was waist high to them. To their left stood an elderly man who was clutching a book, and a slim woman, the latter of whom Wang Zhaojun stared at while faintly frowning, like she knew her. To their right was a boy wearing a red sash and clutching a spear, but he had to stand on a pair of wheels just to be able to peek over the barrier. Flanking them further was a growing crowd, and so many other celestials appeared behind them that if they vacated their places now, there was no way they could return to the front again.
“How busy was it last year?” said Yuhuan, after what felt like hours of waiting. She looked over her shoulder, past Xi Shi’s maid—who could remember being called only Diaochan—who stood behind them as usual, and could no longer see the back of the crowd.
“Really busy,” said Xi Shi. She was the tallest of them, and wore the plainest shirts and skirts. She used thin gold hairpins in her simple bun, and couldn’t understand why Yuhuan liked wearing shawls, or why she had a large collection of headdresses and dangling hairpins. “It’s quieter now because we’re early. I reckon it’ll be even more crowded later.”
“Well, I’m bored,” said Yuhuan, and she folded her arms.
“Have a little patience,” said Zhaojun. Seven hundred years on, she still hadn’t kicked the habit of wearing fur-lined cloaks that draped over the floor, and she preferred to hold up her bun with plain silver hairpins. “You suggested coming here.”
“How was I supposed to know it would take this long?” Yuhuan yawned, making sure to exaggerate for effect. “If those magpies don’t turn up now—”
“I won’t stop you if you want Xi Shi to escort you,” said Zhaojun, “but I know you don’t like staying in your flat all day. You won’t be able to have this spot again if you decide to come back later.”
Yuhuan humphed, and turned her head away. She only saw Zhaojun because Xi Shi liked to have both their company; and the only good thing about losing her ladies-in-waiting was that they would never know she was speaking to someone who didn’t even have a title, for goodness sake. If they knew, that would have meant cutting ties with Xi Shi too, who Yuhuan knew could never abandon one friend for the sake of another.
“It shouldn’t take too long now,” said Xi Shi.
It didn’t take much longer for Yuhuan to start constantly yawning. Minutes later, she tutted when she saw there weren’t any seats around—there was no way she was going to dirty the back of her dress by sitting on the floor—and tried to lean on the barrier to take some of the weight off her feet, except she caught an electric shock and jumped back.
“Are you hurt?” said Xi Shi.
“No,” said Yuhuan, “but I’m tired from standing. Why aren’t there any seats around?”
She had expected Xi Shi to conjure up a seat. Instead, her friend deferred to Diaochan who, at the wave of her hand, made a lump of cloud behind her ankles rise up and detach, like a floating matt, just stopping short from touching her bottom. Yuhuan looked at the cloud, and made sure to exaggerate her disgusted face as she glanced first at Diaochan, and then at Xi Shi.
“Is something wrong?” said Xi Shi. She blinked rapidly, and took a small step back.
Yuhuan pointed at the cloud. “I am not sitting on that. Make one out of wood.”
“I can’t. It’s beyond my capabilities too.”
Yuhuan tutted; surely after five hundred or so years of gathering enough energy to start using magic, and then honing it for seven hundred years plus, it wouldn’t be that difficult to conjure something out of wood? Still, Xi Shi could only teach Diaochan what she knew; and she tried not to think about how she was spoiling her dress as she sat down. She glimpsed Zhaojun staring at her, and then at the kid next to them, like she was trying to say ‘how are you worse than the kid?’ Yuhuan tugged at the fronts of her shawl, and eyed the kid as well. There was no way he could keep up being this still and composed; decades ago, when she had only just become a guifei and her husband’s younger kids were still infants, all she had to do was dangle and shake a tasselled hairpin and they would forget everything they were doing in order to leap up and down to try to grasp the tassels with their tiny fingers.
As it happened, the only dangling hairpins Yuhuan was wearing had clusters of rubies hanging off the ends—to match her dress, of course—and she would rather not let the child rip off even one ruby. Instead, she waited with growing impatience for the boy to start wriggling and complaining; but even when she began to pat her thighs like she was transmitting a secret command for him to behave how she wanted him to, his interest and attention didn’t waver. That little rascal—was he even a child, for goodness sake, or an odd, grown-up deity? Yuhuan was tempted to pull her hairpin out anyway just to test him when cheers and cries erupted from the front of the crowd, and she bounced onto her feet as flocks of magpies began to descend over their heads.
The initial excitement faded fast as Yuhuan watched flock after flock fly to the other side of the bank, disappearing from view. She yawned and sat down on her seat again, now folding her arms. What made it worse was the kid next to her awing and jumping in fascination—oh now he was behaving like a sprightly little brat—and for a split second, she was tempted to scold him. Then she spotted the magpies stopping within sight and slowly forming what looked like a bridge over the river, and she was distracted by how they seemed to be magically held up. They had to be; magpies didn’t know how to form an architecturally stable arch just by perching on top of each other in columns of five, wings spread out and overlapping their neighbours’.
There was a huge cheer when the last magpies landed, forming a solid bridge over the river. Yuhuan was expecting the barriers to disappear, maybe even have someone usher them over—how often did anyone get to say they walked over a bridge of magpies, anyway?—but then the celestials started to talk among themselves, and ones from the back were dispersing again. Then the kid next to them leapt into the air, and Yuhuan watched, open mouthed, as the wheels started to spin, and he skated away through the sky from the scene.
“Is that it?” she said, once she could no longer see the child. The crowd had thinned by now, though a lot of deities waiting at the front were still there.
“I think so,” said Zhaojun. “We left early last year.”
“Let’s cross it,” said Yuhuan, and she was about to step on her seat when Xi Shi lunged and grabbed the hem of her sleeve.
“You can’t go there,” she said.
Yuhuan gritted her teeth, and failed to shake herself loose. “Why not?”
“We’re at the Silver River.”
“The Gateway To Earth is on the other side. Nobody in heaven is allowed to set foot near it.”
Yuhuan barely heard her last words. “There’s a gateway to earth?”
Xi Shi grimaced. “Ignore that—”
“Look—” said Zhaojun. Started by her cry, Yuhuan turned back to the bridge and saw a girl standing in front of the bridge. It looked as though she had plaited her hair first before wounding it into a bun, and she was wearing pink and white robes that had a hem embroidered with a very familiar pattern—hold on, was that—?
“Zhinu,” said Yuhuan. She watched the girl turn around; and all she needed was a profile glimpse to determine that yes, the pronounced brow and nose, and the thin lips belonged to her maid. Yuhuan started to breathe unevenly as she put her knuckles to her hips, and then leapt first onto her seat, before she somehow managed to get over the barrier, and landed on the other side on her knees. She could hear Xi Shi and Diaochan yelling for her, but she picked herself up and began to run to her maid.
“Stop—stop—” she said. How dare her maid come here without her permission? How dare that she—a minor fairy—was allowed to cross the bridge before her, a guifei, the emperor’s most beloved wife? How dare that she never mentioned any of this to her before? Most importantly, how dare she made a guifei run and look so undignified?
Yuhuan hadn’t got very far when a woman who was plumper and older than her stepped in her way. She only just managed to stop in time, and screamed at the woman to move aside.
“No-one may cross this bridge,” said the woman, in a loud, authoritative tone that befitted her appearance. She had the same nose as Zhinu, and though her eyes were also alike in shape, a fiery glare was present that Zhinu definitely did not have.
“Get out of my way.” Yuhuan put her hands to her hips once more, which the woman mirrored straightaway.
“My daughter has my permission to be here, Taizen.”
“HOW DARE YOU—” Yuhuan raised her arm, and was prepared to bring it down to give her a good slap—who was she to address her by Taizen?—when she felt a breeze envelop her, and she landed, face-first, on her own bed again.
Fact was, in the six months since Yuhuan died, she could count the number of times she’d left her flat, the entire first floor of a tower with a gold-painted pattern on the ceiling, bright red walls, and a faux marble flooring that, on closer inspection, was actually jade. A fortnight in, she’d visited a garden full of trees flowering Peaches of Immortality. She hadn’t done anything wrong—she’d only tried to smell a lower growing peach, for goodness sake—but she had only tugged on the branch when a fairy in red robes shot over to push her back. Enraged, Yuhuan decided she also wanted to eat the peach now because how dare this fairy stood up to her—and, she argued, just because she didn’t have the Queen Mother of the West’s permission to smell the peach, she was only one rank below her anyway as a guifei, which made her just as entitled to smell it whenever she wished. She was escorted off the premises ten minutes later, mid-way through screaming and stamping her feet, and now burning with the desire to visit the Yellow Emperor’s palace.
Zhinu and Shuangcheng, her other maid, led her to the palace the next day, where the gold wrought gates were guarded with muscular beings wielding jians and qiangs. They stopped Yuhuan from advancing; and despite her persistence that she was entitled to see the Queen Mother because, hello, she was a guifei and therefore connected to the royal family, they constantly refused her entry. She threatened to throw a tantrum if they didn’t raise their weapons, but her maids dragged her out of the way before she could make good on her words. Undeterred, she found the official banquet hall nearby, and for a split second wondered if she could entreat a higher ranking deity to help her—except the only person inside was a pig-eared being too engrossed with feasting on the remaining halves of roasted chickens to pay attention to anybody else. She tried to return to the gardens on the fourth day, except Shuangcheng sealed the front door shut, and would only release it on the condition that Yuhuan promised to avoid the gardens and the palace.
The next time Yuhuan left was in the following month, when she visited a crystal clear river with lily pads and water lilies bobbing along the current; but all the Chinese pavilions along the way were already occupied with groups of deities. Her luck changed when she reached the last pavilion, and saw it was occupied by eight greying men debating and pointing at open books and scrolls strewn across their laps. They were only scholars, she thought; she had the higher authority, they would have to move for the Emperor’s lady. When they refused, however, she was shaking with so much rage that before she could even scream at them, Shuangcheng and Zhinu marched her back to her flat. Yuhuan hadn’t gone out many more times since, mainly because when she asked where else she could visit, Shuangcheng suggested the peach tree behind Laozi’s house, and Zhinu suggested anywhere but a river. At the time, Yuhuan hadn’t understood what she meant, but she was now certain Zhinu had been thinking about the Silver River.
She kicked her door open and ran into the living room while screaming for Zhinu, but only Shuangcheng answered. Compared to Zhinu, she was shorter, lithe, had gentle vocals and a sweet smile, and wore only white robes. When she mentioned that Zhinu was gone for the rest of the day, Yuhuan just stormed back into her room, and refused to go out, even when Xi Shi came knocking several hours later. She cooled down enough to have dinner outside, but then shut herself in her room again as soon as she finished eating, and soon fell asleep.
As usual, Shuangcheng dressed her the following morning; and rather than eat breakfast, Yuhuan stormed straight to Zhinu’s room. It was directly next to the entrance, and a heavy looking loom occupied most of the little space the maid had to manoeuvre around in. Zhinu spent most of her day in the room, using the loom to weave and embroidering fancy patterns on clothes; all the other chores were Shuangcheng’s responsibility, though Zhinu would occasionally help her out.
“Good morning, madam,” said Zhinu, as she looked up from behind her loom. She had returned to wearing her hair down in a braid.
If the loom hadn’t been on Zhinu’s lap, Yuhuan would have seized her maid by the front of her robe. Instead, Yuhuan was forced to remain by the door, as she shuffled her weight on her feet, her chest rising and falling rapidly, her fists clenched.
“You have some explaining to do,” said Yuhuan.
Zhinu bowed her head. “Please forgive my mother, madam. She can be very rude.”
Yuhuan tapped her foot. “And?”
Zhinu hesitated, which only made Yuhuan inhale even deeper. “I know you went to see the magpies yesterday, madam.”
Yuhuan pointed at her. “You are my maid—” With her other hand, she jabbed her chest. “—and only I am allowed to give you permission to leave this flat, you stupid girl. Do you understand?” She stomped both feet as she shut her eyes so tight she could feel the wrinkles around her eyelids deepening.
She opened her eyes again when she heard a yell covering a low thud behind her, and she turned around to see Diaochan on the floor. The maid was pushing herself up with one hand while she rubbed her hips with the other; and her lip was trembling as she struggled between wincing and keeping a straight face. When she spotted Yuhuan, she gasped and scrambled to her feet before conducting a low bow.
“Oh, what now?” said Yuhuan. She threw her arms into the air, and, as she dropped them, slapped the side of her thighs.
“Diaochan—” said Xi Shi, when she appeared directly by the side of her maid. She looked at Yuhuan. “I’m really sorry. I hope we’re not disturbing you.”
“What do you want?” said Yuhuan.
Xi Shi’s eyes widened. “Oh no—” She held both hands in front. “—we’re not—I was trying to teach Diaochan how to teleport on her own, and she got it wrong. I’m really sorry, we’ll leave now. Ah, Zhinu—”
“Yes madam?” Zhinu sounded faint, now that Yuhuan had her back to the room.
“Lady Wang needs a new string for her pipa. She asked me to get one from you, but I’m afraid I won’t have the time to visit her today. Lady Yang, how about you help me today? I’d be ever so grateful.”
Yuhuan started. “No way.”
Xi Shi widened her eyes even more, making her look like a teenager. “Please, Lady Yang, it would make my day just that bit less stressful if you could help.”
“The string is here, madam,” said Zhinu. Yuhuan turned around, and saw her maid holding a silver string in both hands.
“I am not—” Yuhuan spun around, and jumped on the spot when she saw Diaochan and Xi Shi had disappeared. “—COME BACK—COME BACK RIGHT NOW—”
Yuhuan stormed out of her flat, and into the gold gilded corridor. She ran to her right, and up a twisting redwood staircase. When she reached the next floor, she barely glanced at the armed maids guarding the corridor entrance before dashing up the next set of stairs. She had to catch her breath at the top of the stairs, and kicked the half-newel when she saw there weren’t any seats. Then she remembered that Xi Shi lived on floor 60, the topmost flat, and there was no way she was going to run all the way up there. She then jumped as she spotted Zhinu following after her, still holding on the string.
“Madam, you forgot this,” she said.
“I’m not giving it to her,” said Yuhuan, and she pointed over her shoulder. “You do it.”
“Yes madam.” Zhinu curtseyed, and walked past Yuhuan.
Yuhuan wanted to leave, but her ankles were hurting, and her knees and thighs felt ready to give way any second. She was still breathless, and now her face—especially her cheeks—and neck felt hot too. As she slowly paced around the staircase, she could hear a door open from down the corridor. She knew was that this was a tower reserved only for women with “outstanding womanly grace”—as Shuangcheng had put it—and that the higher up one’s accommodation was, the earlier one had lived and died than those living below.
Yuhuan was expecting Zhinu to be out of Zhaojun’s flat in a matter of minutes; but when her maid didn’t emerge after waiting for ages, Yuhuan walked up to the entrance of the corridor, and began to cough loudly. When her maid still didn’t respond, she rolled her eyes as she walked up to the front door. Zhinu hadn’t shut it behind her; and Yuhuan was ready to cough again when she heard Zhaojun begin to play her pipa.
There was nothing special about the opening lines; but as she played on, Yuhuan shut her eyes, and could picture her chamber in the palace again. She could see the sole maid playing the tune, encircled by the other musicians whose instruments were either in their laps or on tables in front of them. She had her head on the emperor’s shoulder; he had his head turned away from her, but only because the top of her bun brushed the underside of his jaw. The trail of jewels and kingfisher feathers dangling off her hairpins were draped over the soft, smooth touch of the vivid yellow robes her husband wore, but her hands were over his chest and lower back, tracing the ridges and harshness of the thread used to embroider the dragons.
Yuhuan gasped as the tune ended, and she opened her teary eyes again. She dabbed her eyes dry on her sleeves, and shook them loose again before she stormed into the flat. The layout was roughly the same as hers, though there wasn’t an additional room next to the entrance; and the walls and ceiling were blue and silver, and the white jade floor had pieces of crystals and light sapphires embedded in to glisten like the first layer of frost and snow had settled. Given the décor, it was almost a shock to feel the room had been adjusted to room temperature.
“Zhinu,” she said, like she was issuing a command. She saw her maid stood behind the table where Zhaojun was sat. Her pipa was in her lap, and the shininess of the new string made it obvious which was the replacement. “We need to go.”
“Are you alright?” said Zhaojun. There was mild concern in her eyes, which made Yuhuan purse her lips. Who did she think she was, to ask after her like they were equals?
“Yes, I am,” she said, and she turned around so fast the hem of her sleeves and robes whipped round at a slower pace. “We’re leaving.”
The next time she saw Zhaojun again was a week later. Xi Shi had dropped by to invite her to an evening out; and because Yuhuan’s desire to leave her flat far outweighed her dislike for Zhaojun, she agreed without much hesitation. The three of them met in a serviced pavilion which, judging by the size, was really better fitted for a party of twelve. Winding around them was a river full of goldfish with scales that still gleamed brightly under the moonlight. Yuhuan refused to sit next to Zhaojun, so Xi Shi was wedged between the two of them.
“So, did you enjoy the magpie bridge?” said Xi Shi.
“No,” said Yuhuan. She hadn’t spoken to Zhinu about it since, but it still made her cross to think that her maid was allowed to cross that bridge.
“Of course she didn’t,” said Zhaojun. “Look how furious she is.”
“Who asked you to speak?”
“What’s wrong?” said Xi Shi. She hadn’t stopped looking at Yuhuan. “You were really excited to see it.”
“Why is my maid allowed to do something I can’t?”
Xi Shi frowned. “You don’t know, do you?”
“You’re kidding me,” said Zhaojun. “Zhinu’s your maid, and you don’t know?”
“Oh, and I suppose you do?” said Yuhuan.
“I found out last year.”
“Found out what? What should I know? Tell me, or we’re not friends anymore.” Yuhuan put her bottle down, crossed her arms, and bounced in her seat to turn her back to Xi Shi at an angle.
Xi Shi began to gently rub her shoulders in small circles, and Yuhuan could sense her breath by the side of her head. “I’m not telling you because I think of you as my friend,” she said into Yuhuan’s right ear. Yuhuan could picture her speaking with a smile. “Talk to Zhinu about it. She’s a nice girl.”
Yuhuan shrugged Xi Shi off, and flung her right arm behind her as she turned back round again. “That reminds me,” she said, “how do you know Zhinu?”
Xi Shi shrugged. “I’ve seen her before.”
Yuhuan narrowed her eyes. “You told her directly to take the string upstairs.” Hold on, she thought, when did she have musical strings lying around the flat when she didn’t play anything?
“So that’s why you showed up,” said Zhaojun. “Why did you get her to do it?”
“Not you as well,” said Xi Shi, in a higher pitch than usual. “Look, I was really busy.”
“You should have come to me. I could have spared Yang Guifei the trouble and walked to her flat myself to get the string.”
Xi Shi gasped, and smiled at Yuhuan. “Oh, you went to her flat? It’s really pretty, isn’t it?”
Instead of answering, Yuhuan looked over her shoulder, and was momentarily fixated on a cluster of bubbles rising and popping at rapid paces by the foot of the pavilion. She could see the fishes slapping each other with their mouths, their bodies flittering near the surface before submerging, and then reappearing again. This went on for a few minutes until a third, duller fish swam straight through the pair, and they went their separate ways.
“I have seen Lady Xi many times for the past 1,200 years, madam,” said Zhinu. She was sat behind her loom, but busy embroidering a pattern of gold butterflies, herons, and camellias on a plain red dress.
“Yes, but she’s not allowed to order my servants at her leisure.”
Zhinu didn’t look up. “If you mean the string, madam—” Yuhuan rolled her eyes; oh, so now her maid got the point? “—I promise it will not happen again.”
“It had better not,” said Yuhuan. “Speaking of which, where did you get it from?”
“My loom is not just limited to fabric, madam.”
“You mean you just weaved it out of nowhere?”
“I gathered all the composite threads required, and used my loom to create a musical string, madam.”
“Prove it to me. I want you to weave something unusual for me.”
Zhinu almost dropped her needle. She looked up, and hesitated. “Are you sure, madam?”
“Do as I say, or I will confiscate your loom.”
As it happened, Xi Shi was too busy to see her that day, so Yuhuan spent most of it rolling around on her bed, wishing that she had her ladies-in-waiting again to accompany her. At one point, she was tempted to visit somewhere else in heaven, except Shuangcheng had too many chores to complete, and Zhinu had locked the door to her room. Instead, Yuhuan tried to talk her way past the maids on the second floor again for the fourth time; I’m only curious who’s living here, she had to say over and over to them, but even when she ended up directly asking them who their master was, they advanced a few steps forward with their jians drawn in lieu of an answer.
When Yuhuan returned to her flat, she thought she had walked through the wrong door. The entire floor was layered with thin, pure white clouds, exactly like the kind she had been walking on outside. There were a few strands drifting upwards, but all of them thinned before touching the ceiling. The light that shone through the windows seemed to make the clouds sparkle, and for the first time, it made her red walls seem like a lighter, near pinkish shade.
Yuhuan could open Zhinu’s door again, and the room smelt of fresh grass. Her maid was inside, cleaning her loom with a damp cloth.
“That’s amazing,” said Yuhuan.
“I’m pleased you like it, madam,” said Zhinu. She didn’t look up.
“What else can it do?”
“I would like to show you, madam, but my loom must rest now. I fear it will break if I weave too many clouds at a time.”
Yuhuan glanced at the loom. The wooden frame was scratched and chipped all over, yes, and the strings had lightly frayed in one or two areas, but otherwise, the whole device looked as if it still had hundreds of years of use left.
“How long do you need to rest it for?” she said.
“At least twelve hours, madam.”
“Well, I want to see another spectacular thing,” said Yuhuan. When she saw Zhinu hesitate, she added, “If you don’t, I’ll confiscate your loom.”
The clouds thinned out at such a slow rate that by the time night fell, and Yuhuan had gone to bed, she still couldn’t see the floor; and when she woke up, the clouds were still visible, even if the density had faded into little more than a wisp. After breakfast, she brushed her hand through the clouds like she was trying to scoop up a snowball, except any cloud she grabbed rapidly spilled over the cracks and sides of her fingers. She only had to wait for several more hours, but it had never felt this difficult, trying to find something to amuse her until she got her next surprise.
What she didn’t expect was to see Xi Shi appear in front of her shortly before midday. She was grinning the widest Yuhuan had ever seen her do, and she was almost hopping over to seize her by the wrist.
“Are you free?” she said. She spoke so fast it looked as if she was a word or two away from biting her tongue. “You’ve got to come with me.”
Yuhuan leapt out of her seat, relieved that there was something to pass the time with, at last. She had barely nodded when her walls seemed to change from red to purple, and the flooring replaced with neatly cut floorboards—and then she jumped out of Xi Shi’s grasp when she saw Zhaojun sat opposite them in the shiniest lacquered chair she had ever seen, with her pipa in her lap. In front of Zhaojun was a table capable of seating four, but was being used to support a guqin even shinier than the chair, and decorated with an intricate pattern of branches of plum flowers overlapping each other.
“It’s so beautiful,” said Xi Shi, and she hurried over to the guqin. She traced several of the strings with her fingers. “I met a deity who spends his days just decorating fans and instruments, so of course I had to give him my guqin, and he’s only just returned it, and—and—well, what do you think?”
“It’s very pretty,” said Yuhuan. She glanced over her shoulder, and saw Diaochan pulling up a chair for her.
“He said he’d replace my strings as well, so I have no idea how it’s going to sound. I can’t test out my guqin without an audience, so, you know, you get to be the first to hear what it sounds like now.” Xi Shi clasped and rubbed her hands together. Her eyes were round and alight, and her smile had widened.
Yuhuan sat down, and focused only on Xi Shi, who held her fingers above the strings in preparation. A brief silence followed before she began to pluck her instrument, and Yuhuan leaned back. She wasn’t sure if the quality of silk in heaven had an effect on the guqin, or if her flat was just so roomy that it seemed to echo back each note. She shut her eyes, and, along with Zhaojun, clapped when Xi Shi finished.
“Diaochan should be nearly done with lunch,” said Xi Shi, and she turned to her left, “but I have to hear you play, Zhaojun, before we eat.”
“Sure,” said Zhaojun, and she too began to play.
She had started on a different tune, but the first bars already had Yuhuan leaning even further into her chair. It didn’t take many more notes for her to feel once again submerged up to her neck in water that felt warm, but only from how long she’d already been sitting in the Huaqin pool for. The Emperor had already stepped out, and was being dried and dressed by two eunuchs who had, out of respect, kept their backs to her throughout. Yuhuan had waited for him to dismiss the eunuchs before she stood up, and let her foot slip on the first step out. She’d made sure to gasp as she toppled over, and struck the side of the pool with her palms; and she’d remained with her knees and elbows bent and her head bowed as the maids ran over to gently grasp her arms, and she slowly stepped out. She bit her lip as she looked over her shoulder, and upon seeing her husband staring at her, she looked down so her eyelids were half-shielding her eyes.
“Seriously, are you alright, Lady Yang?” she heard Zhaojun say.
Yuhuan started as she remembered she was sat in a flat in heaven, and put her hands over her face as she realised her eyes were watering again. She rubbed her sleeves up and down, and even though she managed to dry her tears, she remained slouched.
“Oh, you were thinking of your human memories, weren’t you?” said Xi Shi.
This made Yuhuan sit upright. “How did you know?” she said.
“It took me years to get over it,” said Xi Shi. “It’s why I couldn’t play my guqin for ages. It made me think of Zheng Dan.”
“It’s alright if you want to cry,” said Zhaojun, in the softest tone Yuhuan had heard her use yet. “It’s not easy for anyone to adjust their lives after death.”
Yuhuan shook her head, and pushed down on the armrests. She had never felt so drawn to an instrument before; and as she glanced at the pipa, she said, “I want to learn how to play.”
Zhaojun frowned. “You want to learn the pipa?”
“Yes. That’s what I said.”
“Are you sure?” said Zhaojun, as she raised her eyebrows even higher. The lines on her forehead deepened, and her grip on the neck of her pipa seemed to tighten too.
“Yes, and I want you to teach me.”
“That’d be wonderful,” said Xi Shi, and she too stood up. “Then we can form a little trio, and we can play to entertain ourselves, and it’d be so much fun.”
“Alright,” said Zhaojun. “We’ll start tomorrow. Come to mine at ten.”
At that moment, Diaochan crossed the room with a large, gold gilded tray packed full of bamboo steamer baskets and several teapots and cups hovering above her outstretched arms. Xi Shi moved her guqin away, and any discussion about music faded away completely as they settled in for lunch.
Afterwards, Yuhuan got Xi Shi to teleport her back into her flat. The first thing Yuhuan noticed was that the clouds were gone, and that her accommodation seemed to have darkened from the lack of light—and then she shrieked and grabbed Xi Shi’s robes as a downpour erupted from above their heads. She looked up to see black rainclouds lining the ceiling; and then they dashed into Zhinu’s room where she and Shuangcheng were hiding.
Rather than tell off her maid, all Yuhuan could manage was to stutter her amazement at just how powerful that loom was.
For a start, she had been given Zhaojun’s spare pipa to use which, on its own, looked about the right size—until she compared it to Zhaojun’s own pipa, and realised the body was slimmer by a few centimeters on either side, and the neck was shorter. What was wrong with having two the same size, for goodness sake? Even if she could overlook the difference, it was still demotivating to hear that she still didn’t understand how to properly pluck the strings, or that she was making a melodic mess of the beginner’s piece of music Zhaojun had instructed her to practice.
“If you want to give up, fine,” said Zhaojun. “Congratulations, you’ve exceeded my expectations in one area, at least.”
Yuhuan perked up. She hadn’t handed over the pipa yet, and so gripped the neck tighter. “What?” she said.
“I thought you’d be out the door after the first lesson. I never guessed you’d make it to four.”
Yuhuan’s chest swelled up as she threw her shoulders back. How dare Zhaojun, a commoner, look down on her, a guifei, like that? She gripped the pipa until her arms trembled, and said, “I change my mind. I want this lesson.”
She watched Zhaojun jerk her head back a little. “As you wish, niangniang.”
Yuhuan wrinkled her nose, but let the remark slide as her determination overrode her temper. She eyed Zhaojun through narrow eyes for the rest of the lesson, and pressed and plucked the strings harder than she should have, but, by the end, she thought she saw Zhaojun smile as she dismissed her back to her flat.
Once Yuhuan walked in through her door, she groaned and elbowed her way into Zhinu’s room. Today, Zhinu had decided to surprise her by lining the roof with pale clouds that snowed, with the occasional snowflake falling onto the bed of snow that had already settled beforehand. Any other day, it would have made her a little giddy—she hadn’t seen snow that often on earth, after all—but now she just thought of Zhaojun’s cloaks, and with it came all the irritations of the pipa.
“No more snow clouds,” were Yuhuan’s first words to Zhinu. She could see the loom glistening from polish, though the room smelt of nothing.
“I’m sorry, madam,” said Zhinu. Sure enough, the following week, Yuhuan came home to a lightning storm.
What Yuhuan hadn’t accounted was how easy it was to find something to occupy her time that wasn’t practicing the pipa in-between lessons. She would stare at the instrument, now propped in the corner of the room, and at the music sheets that lay folded by its feet, and knew that she needed to practice today—and then she would see her wardrobe, and realise that she still had to re-arrange her clothes because it was coming up to late autumn and she would need something thicker. Then she shuffled her hairpins and accessories around because most of the old sets didn’t match her new wardrobe; and once she’d finished doing that, Shuangcheng entered her room with the new curtains that needed to be hung around her bed, which would take so long to do that she might as well just go outside and eat lunch; and after lunch, Xi Shi would appear to ask how she was getting along, and that natter would lead to a variety of topics that required at least two hours of light-hearted discussions, only rounded off when Xi Shi had to leave again, and she would slip in an invitation to go out tomorrow night or the one after, which of course Yuhuan had to accept.
Then, finally, there was time to practice. Once she picked up her pipa, though, she had barely gone over the sheets a dozen times when her fingers were itching to push the instrument aside again and just pick up something else to do. Whenever she did lift up the pipa, she thought about how she was only proving Zhaojun right, and she put the instrument back into her lap.
Her interest, though, really only began to rise when Zhaojun began giving her longer sheet music. Maybe there was also something about sitting still for at least three hours a day, just focusing on her instrument, which gave rise to a certain calmness she hadn’t really felt since she’d became Princess of Shou. Once, she witnessed Shuangcheng elbow a potted plum blossom while cleaning the living room and the vase smashed on impact, spilling out mud and broken petals and twigs. Her maid had gasped and turned to her, like she was anticipating a reproach; and all Yuhuan did was sigh and say, “Can you fix that?” She’d thought no more of the incident once Shuangcheng used her magical abilities to restore the plant, but she was aware of her maid staring every now and then at her.
Winter soon swept over heaven, and the colder temperatures and clouds meant Xi Shi was no longer offering to go out somewhere for the evening. Instead, she preferred to use one of their flats as the location for “nights out”; and although they often went to Xi Shi’s, the next flat they frequented the most was Yuhuan’s.
Now that their “nights out” were indoors instead, they spent the majority of them either drinking like there was no tomorrow—once, Diaochan had to send them home because Xi Shi could barely stand—or playing their instruments as a trio led by Xi Shi, even though they were all at varying levels of skill. Yuhuan had initially been reluctant to play, because somehow it made her feel even worse playing in front of friends; but Xi Shi always nodded and smiled along, and rarely had a bad word to say, though Yuhuan suspected it was due to how unfamiliar she was with the technicalities of the pipa.
Besides, Xi Shi and Zhaojun were so far ahead of her that when they did play together, Yuhuan could get away with letting their instruments overpower the sound of hers. She was just providing back up to Zhaojun anyway most of the time, save for the occasional different chord; and they tended to pick fast, rapid songs that inevitably grew louder as the pieces progressed.
“We’re playing a lot of cheerful songs,” said Yuhuan, when they had swapped their instruments for small, white jade bottles of wine. The liquid was crystal clear, yet the taste was far better than anything on earth—and completely free from hangovers, no matter how much she consumed. “But I want to try something sad.”
Zhaojun glanced at Yuhuan. “I’m not sure we should,” she said.
“Why not?” said Xi Shi.
“Don’t hold back because of me,” said Yuhuan. “I can handle sad songs.”
“I still don’t think it’s a good idea. The only sad music we’ve got is far beyond what I’ve been teaching you.”
“Then let her sit this out,” said Xi Shi. Her speech was partially unintelligible due to the slight slur at the end of her words. “I want her to listen. I want to know how good we sound.” She grabbed her friend, and dragged her over to their instruments.
“The problem is—” Zhaojun sat down, but didn’t reach for her pipa. “—Yuhuan keeps thinking of her past life once she hears me play.”
Yuhuan shrugged, and said, “I haven’t experienced anything since I started taking lessons from you.”
“Are you really sure about this?” said Zhaojun as she frowned at Yuhuan. Next to her, Xi Shi was shuffling through a stack of sheet music.
Yuhuan waved her hand, and leaned back. “Don’t worry about me,” she said, “you were playing happier tunes when you made me cry.”
Zhaojun looked like she wanted to argue again when Xi Shi loudly declared she had found the piece, and chucked a copy over in front of her. Zhaojun glanced down, sighed, and picked up her pipa. Xi Shi started the first bars; but it was only when Zhaojun joined in that Yuhuan shut her eyes to take in the tune.
This time, she could smell the dust first, and could once again picture the roof of the yellowing marquee stationed outside Mawei Station. The ground was trembling from the soldiers stomping outside—oh god she couldn’t breathe—a pair of hands was pressing into the front of her throat—she could barely scream for her husband—she didn’t want to see Gao Lishi, or hear him apologise as he tightened his grip—she was losing the strength to keep flailing—she wanted her husband—where was he?—the Emperor—where was he?—someone get the Emperor—she needed to breathe—she had to see him—she had to watch him drag the eunuch outside and kill him with his own bare hands—no, that wouldn’t be enough—she needed to breathe—but the Emperor—where was her husband?—where—?
Yuhuan gasped as the flat felt far too small. She couldn’t breathe anymore—oh god, no, she needed fresh air—and she clasped her hands over her neck protectively as she ran, nearly knocking both Shuangcheng and Zhinu over along the way, and elbowed the front doors open. She headed to her left, down the set of stairs as she rapidly inhaled as much air as she could, and into the golden lobby. She vaguely heard the fairy warden—was it Xiaoyu? She couldn’t remember—calling for her, but she ran straight out and into the open air where, at last, she slowed down both her speed and breathing. There was air—she was out in the open again—she was facing only clouds and skies—she was in heaven, yes, and safe again.
“Madam—” Yuhuan couldn’t even tell which maid was calling for her. She sank to her knees, and hunched over as she cried. She hadn’t even realised how cold it was outside until someone threw a cloak over her, and then she found her sides and back flanked with hugs and stroking and patting her back. When her breathing steadied, someone carried her back into her flat, where she staggered to her bed, and fell asleep soon after.
Yuhuan stopped as she noticed that Zhinu was in blue and white robes that had been embroidered all over with gold thread, and she had tied a gold sash around her waist. Her braid was up in a bun again, and held in place with jade hairpins adorned with kingfisher feathers that neatly followed and enhanced the curvature of her hairdo.
“Good morning, madam,” said Zhinu, and she curtseyed.
“You’re looking fancy today,” said Yuhuan.
Zhinu glanced to her side as she said, “I will be away from the flat today, madam.”
Yuhuan frowned. “You never mentioned this to me.”
“I thought you would know, madam.”
Yuhuan stared, as she tried to think what Zhinu could be referring to; and then she saw a flock of magpies fly past the window. “It can’t be the seventh month already,” she said.
“Are you coming to see the magpies today, madam?” said Zhinu.
Yuhuan shook her head. There was no point going back a second year, both Xi Shi and Zhaojun had told her, because there was nothing new to behold. It was probably more fun watching all the magpies fly past, knowing where they were heading off to.
“I need to practice,” said Yuhuan. She smiled. “Enjoy yourself. I’ll be fine with just Shuangcheng.”
Zhinu curtseyed again, and went to leave through the front door. Yuhuan watched her pull the door open, and then said to her, “Where does the bridge lead?”
Zhinu turned around. “It goes over the Silver River, madam.”
“I know, but … Xi Shi said the Gateway to Earth is on the other side,” said Yuhuan. Zhinu nodded. “Do you go down to earth?”
Zhinu gently shut the door behind her, and walked back over. “No, madam,” she said. “Some of the magpies do. My husband comes to meet me on the other side.”
Yuhuan blinked. “You’re married?”
Zhinu sighed. “That depends who you ask, madam.”
Yuhuan glanced at the window, and saw another flock pass. “Do you have time to talk?”
“A little,” said Zhinu, and she told Yuhuan how she had once gone to explore earth at the start of spring, thousands of years ago. She had come across a field where she had watched her husband, Niulang, tending to his cows all day long; and she’d watched him until she had fallen in love with him. She’d waited until he went to a nearby river to fetch water for his cows, and bathed in front of him—to move things right along, of course. They’d married on the promise he would make money from his cows to raise her, and she would thread patterns onto paying customers’ fans and clothes.
There skies had remained clear during her time on earth, and the farmers’ crops were dying from the lack of water and too much sunlight. Her mother had seized her back to heaven on the 7th day of the 7th month; and flocks of magpies had formed a staircase for Niulang to chase them all the way up to heaven. When he was stuck on the other side of the Silver River, the magpies formed a bridge for him. Seeing him run after her had at least made her mother stop and let them talk, but she would only recognise they were in love; she wouldn’t accept they had married, especially as it had taken place on earth.
“I thought I would never see him again when she banished him back to earth,” said Zhinu. “My mother spoke to the Jade Emperor, and he allowed me to become a maid instead, to take my mind off things. Then I heard the magpies formed the bridge again a year later, and that Niulang had walked through the Gateway to Earth. I knew I had to see him, and … well, nothing’s really changed since.” She ended with a small shrug.
“I don’t get it,” said Yuhuan. “Niulang should have died ages ago. Why isn’t he in heaven?”
“My mother knew this would happen, madam, so she spoke to the Jade Emperor about it. My husband has been an assistant to Tudigong since he died.”
Yuhuan nodded. “I see. Well, I won’t keep you any longer. Have fun today, Zhinu.”
After Zhinu left, Yuhuan sat down by the window and watched magpies fly past in a constant, steady stream for the morning. Was it really mid-summer already? Then again, she had no memory of re-arranging her wardrobe and accessories, or when Shuangcheng and Zhinu started to be so talkative to her either; and even Diaochan, to whom she hadn’t spoken many words since they first knew with each other, had begun to ask her how she had been lately.
Xi Shi popped by after lunch, and her first words were, “Did you see the magpies?”
Yuhuan nodded. “Zhinu told me everything. I feel sorry for her.”
“Oh, I know,” said Xi Shi, “I can’t imagine what it’s like being apart from your husband for nearly every day of every year.”
“How do you know?”
“What do you mean?” Xi Shi blinked.
“How long have you known Zhinu for?” Yuhuan didn’t mean to make it sound like she was interrogating her friend, but her curiosity was overwhelming her at the same time.
“Ah, has she not told you?” Xi Shi gently bit her lip. “She was my maid for a couple of hundred years.”
“Really?” Yuhuan leaned in, and leaned on the armrest of her chair.
Xi Shi nodded several times. “This is the third tower for celestials with outstanding womanly grace. New ones get made when the old one reaches something like one hundred floors. I used to live right at the bottom of the second tower, and Zhinu used to work there too, but then it got a bit dangerous for the poor lady on the top, so I was moved here, and Zhinu came with me.”
“Why did she stop being your maid?”
“Diaochan came to heaven, and someone must have thought it was time to give me a new maid.”
Yuhuan just nodded and changed the subject. What she knew she shouldn’t suggest out-loud was that maybe Zhinu was no longer destined to be useful to Xi Shi, because why else would they swap her maid just like that? When they were still alive, didn’t they always hear how everyone’s lives were determined by heaven? Why would it be any different now that they were celestial beings, living out the remainder of their lives?
Yuhuan grumbled, and tried to smack Shuangcheng away from her, except she brought each strike down on empty air. Then she felt another pair of hands tapping her shoulders, and heard Zhinu also trying to wake her up.
“What now?” said Yuhuan as she reluctantly sat up. She rubbed her eyes, and eventually opened them to see both maids flanking her bed. The door was shut too; but didn’t she leave it open last night?
“A priest has come to see you, madam,” said Shuangcheng. “He is waiting outside for you. He has a message from your loving husband, the father of the Son of Heaven, the Taishang Huang of Tang.”
Yuhuan jumped out of bed. Her husband—the Emperor—he was here at last—! She spun wildly on the spot as she momentarily seemed to forget where her wardrobe was; and then she noticed Shuangcheng holding out a red and gold dress for her, and she barked at her maid to hurry up and dress her.
This time, it was Zhinu who helped decorate her hair; but getting her to stay still long enough to insert all the hairpins was a challenge in itself. Yuhuan wanted to run out of the door right now—her husband had finally come to her after so long!—but Shuangcheng stopped her to let her know the priest was stood on the other side. Yuhuan had never realised, either, just how long it took to fashion her hair properly; and although she told Zhinu several times to just stab the hairpins in, her maid refused on the argument that she had to look good for her husband after such a lengthy absence.
“Don’t forget this,” said Zhinu as she unboxed the central headpiece.
Yuhuan smiled, and bent her knees further while Zhinu affixed it in front of her bun. “Promise me one thing, Zhinu,” she said.
“The magpie bridge can hold up two people, can’t it?”
“It can, madam.”
“Let me cross it with you. Let me go back down to earth and find him, and I promise I’ll return afterwards.”
Yuhuan wanted to grab Zhinu’s hands as she spoke. They could work out the logistics later; they might have to make a case for the Jade Emperor, but that would be fine, they would have time. She had to see him, even if they could meet only once. She had things to ask him, like why he never stopped Gao Lishi, or why he believed she was responsible for her brother's actions, or why he would even allow her to be treated as a scapegoat. His words would not be enough—she almost wanted to see him wrinkled and white-haired with a lengthy beard as solid proof of how sincere his feelings were.
“Of course, madam,” said Zhinu, smiling.
Yuhuan stood upright again, and gently touched her hairdo, just to make sure it was holding up in place. She glanced at her table, and picked up a green box that had fabric leaves sewn all over the lid; inside was a hairpin with a string of gold plates cut into leaves, and all embedded with emeralds of varying shades. Her hands trembled as she clutched the last hairpin the Emperor had bestowed to her, just days before they were evacuated from Chang’an. Political turmoil had, by then, been raging all around them, but still her husband had been determined to hand over his gift to see her blush and smile, and to see the foliage dangling over the side of her head.
She glanced at both maids before she nodded at Shuangcheng; and when she walked out of the room, she saw the priest in Daoist robes, smiling and waiting for her with open arms.